Advice to a Young Man Hoping to Go Somewhere (Or Get Something From Someone Successful)

September 5, 2011 — 91 Comments

When I dropped out of school at 19 to start my first job in Hollywood, I didn’t know anything and I had no idea where I’d end up. Thankfully, I was attached to some smart and forgiving people who let me learn under them. I suppose I also had good instincts. Within a few short years, I’d become a bestselling author, the director of marketing for a publicly traded company and got to work on a ton of cool projects. I’ve hired my fair share of people now (fired them too) and having been through the ringer of young-person-just-starting-out-in-a-new-field close to a half dozen times, I figure I know it well enough to talk about it.

It goes like this: You’re scared but overconfident, clueless but eager to learn, just glad to be given a shot and you don’t want to screw it up. I tried to think of a few things I wish I’d been told when I was just starting, things that would have saved me some tough lessons. These are the things I still tell myself.

They are:

-Calm down.

-Assess the terrain. Sit there and observe. Figure out who the dominant personality types are, what makes them tick and how things really work. Don’t act, don’t give your opinion, don’t do anything until this has been done. When you understand the people, politics and the business (eg, the terrain) then you can begin to get to work.

-Always say less than necessary.

-The point isn’t just to prove that you’re capable, but also that you’re sane. In fact, if you had to pick between the two, being well-adjusted the better one. You can teach people how to do things. You can’t make them normal. In other words, leave your crazy at home.

-Stay on the radar. Your excuses need to be just not-flimsy enough that they don’t seem completely full of shit. If it passes that test, then any question, any update, any offer to worth using to stay in the frame.

-Don’t be too good at being an assistant (or an intern). In fact, the whole point is to be too good to be wasting your time and other people’s time at administrative shit that you mess up anyway.

-Remember, most people on the internet are losers and outsiders. “Don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic,” Marcus Aurelius would remind himself. Don’t go expecting Seth Godin, Jeff Jarvis or [insert industry blogger here]. Whatever you do, don’t quote them. Your job is to successfully mitigate their vision of how the World Magically Should Be with how it Realistically Is. If you can do that, you’re more revolutionary than they will ever be.

-If you’re working all the time—that is, if you don’t get to leave the office until midnight and got there at 5am—you’re doing something wrong. You’re either working for an idiot who is going to burn you out, or you’re the idiot and you haven’t figured out the short cuts. For a while I had 3 full time jobs (ones you’d have killed for) at the same time. I wasn’t working all hours of the same, I just did them simultaneously.

-Steer clear of the charlatans, lifers, and the toxic. You become who you know.

-On the same note, you can probably skip most of the “social” activities the job requires. Introductory calls, lunch meetings, parties and conferences are usually a waste. Don’t be friendless and don’t be rude, but these things are mostly collective effort to waste time and forget how unhappy everyone is. Besides, being the conspicuous absence can help build your reputation, if done right.

-Ask yourself: “Am I saying this because I want to prove how smart I am or am I saying this because it needs to be said?” When you’re just getting started, it’s usually the former.

-Forget credit. Fucking forget it so hard you’re glad when other people get it instead of you. After all, that’s your job—to make other people look better.

-Save your money. The smaller your nut each month, the less pressure you’ll feel to put up with stupid shit. It gives you the luxury of not being dependent on the system. It lets you see through it. (see: The Dress Suit Bribe)

-Write your own rules. Forget the bullshit ones (dress code, hours, hierarchy etc), follow the critical ones (getting results, never offend the wrong person) and do whatever you want. Seriously.

-Educate yourself. No one is ever going to teach you enough or hand it to you on a platter. Books and articles, and ask questions—an endless amount of them. People love to give advice and they love people who they don’t feel they have to drag to the next level.

-Make it happen. Nobody cares what it will take, what problems this causes for you, what personal stuff you have going on. Just get it done. You can tell us what you went through…after.

-Have an exit strategy. Know how this all fits into your grand strategy, this is the Start-Up of You. But also have the easily explainable, non-threatening goal that you tell people so you can maneuver in peace. If you’re working at a management company, don’t tell everyone your goal is to be a stand up comedian. The grand strategy is just for you.

-Don’t expect anyone else to understand. It’s your job to find a release and an outlet for the stress and the feelings. Never forget: the crazy stays at home.

-Relax.

Most importantly, remember that you are not special. There were a million other kids on this path before you and there will be another million after. Most of them either went nowhere or turned out to be nothing. Even the successful ones might still flame out or be assholes. What does this mean? It means don’t get high on yourself. Don’t tell yourself a story. Be quiet, work hard, and stay healthy. It’s not ambition or skill that is going to set you apart—notice I didn’t mention those things a single time. It’s safe to assume you’ve already got them covered. What will set you apart, what is rare, is humility, diligence and self-awareness.

One last thing. You can always email me (as many of you have taken it upon yourself to do). I’ve been there. I’m still there in some ways. But like I said, I’ve been through this ringer more times and with more riding on it than most people. I’m happy to help.

Up and Down

August 29, 2011 — 16 Comments

In the midst of the breakdown of the Roman Republic, during the Civil War between Pompey and Caesar, Pompey made the decision to give control of the military fleet to Cato, the philosopher-politician. A gratifying honor and responsibility for Cato, a chance for the perpetual outsider to put his ideas into action. Yet only days later, under pressures of jealousy and paranoia from his inner circle, Pompey reversed his decision and took the command away.

It was an enormous public humiliation. To be demoted, basically cashiered, for no good reason. But the record shows that Cato’s reaction to this was basically nothing. In fact, he responded with equal indifference to promotion and the demotion. His support for the cause remained unwavering. He did not sulk away or grow bitter. On the eve of battle, when the men—his men, the very men he should have been commanding—were restless and undisciplined, Cato was the one the generals turned to for the right words. They asked him to propel the men to a victory that should have been his. So he did.

See, Cato declined to take the slights personally. And this was possible because he declined to take the honors personally as well. Neither the good, the bad—the dignity nor the indignity—provoked a change in Cato. They could not make him feel better or worse, rewarded or unrewarded. He was immune to the seduction of external events.

On Confidence

August 11, 2011 — 13 Comments

When you lose confidence in yourself, the worst thing you can do is sit and wait for it to be restored. It won’t happen. You’ll feel worse.

Yet this is what we do; we despair because things aren’t going like we hoped. We feel down because of a ‘string of bad luck’ or fall prey to the insidious discouragement that comes along with ‘nothing good happening for a while.’

At the end John Fante’s book Dreams From Bunker Hill, the character, a writer, reminds himself that if he can write one great line, he can write two and if he can write two he can write three, and if he can write three, he can write forever. He pauses. Even that seemed insurmountable. So he types out four lines from one of his favorite poems. What the hell, he says, a man has to start someplace.

When explaining self-esteem to their patients, psychologists use the metaphor of two open cisterns that provide drinking water for nearby towns. When it rains, they both fill to the brim. But when it stops raining, one drains faster than the other. Why does one stay full while the other empties? It’s simple: it’s also fed by an underground spring.

We must find our own spring. And return to it when we need replenishment.

We can run a few miles as fast as we’re able. We can get absorbed in a book, so much that you forget the world around you. Or help someone. Have stimulating conversation. Go for a long walk. These things tap into something bigger than us and in the process remind us about that which is within us—what we are capable of. We simply need to seek it out.

The professional, Steve Pressfield writes in The War of Art, sometimes has to “throw down a 360 tomahawk jam from time to time, just to let the boys know he’s still in business.” The boys in this case are those little doubts you get in your head, the ones that tell you that you don’t have what it takes, that the project isn’t worth it, that you’re not up to the task. Go out and remind the crowd why you’re in the arena. Do what you have within you but take for granted or are saving for later. Silence them by doing it. Remind yourself.

A common theme from the ancients is that of great, supernatural forces. A swirl of particles. Time as a river. Flowing energy. Incarnation. It might have stemmed from their ignorance of certain scientific concepts, but that was a benefit rather than a curse. This makes it easier to imagine tapping into something out there, finding nourishment in it, being moved forward from it. These were streams that they could depend on, infinite underground wells to fill their cisterns.

As I struggle with confidence in my own life and on my own projects, it’s helpful to think of this. It is replenishing, a little bit more each time.

The Present Moment

July 26, 2011 — 28 Comments

There is this feeling you get when you’re driving a friend’s car or staying in a hotel. It is less stressful, easier. All the things and baggage you’ve allowed to accumulate in your actual life don’t seem to be there. You don’t look at the gas gauge and care. The things that bother you about your car don’t bother you in this one. You sleep better in the hotel. It feels nicer than your house.

If it could always be like this, you think, that would be the life. Which is funny because nothing is actually different. Unless you’re an asshole, you’re still paying for gas. Hotel rooms are actually filthy and you could buy all the stuff in them for your own house if you wanted. Yet it doesn’t feel the same.

This is because you’ve given yourself, as Marcus Aurelius would say, “the gift of the present moment.” It feels fresh because you are looking at it fresh. You appreciate your feelings because you’re aware of them, you’re alert for a change. Like you’ve taken a big deep breath and opened your eyes.

These glimpses are helpful because they remind us what we could have if we just got out of our own way. If we stopped minding the gas tank and caring whether it cost $3.59 or $4 a gallon to fill up. If we remember that we can move or, more realistically, rearrange the inside of our own house whenever we get tired of it. If a certain kind of blanket feels better, get it and be done with the issue. They remind us that all the things we say weigh us down are ours by choice.

Sometimes a quick shift in our environment forces us to focus entirely on the present–it doesn’t allow us to muddle up the situation with our thoughts and pessimism and worry. And the instant of lightness we feel when it happens, well, that’s what we could have all the time if we wanted to and worked at it.

Pain

July 17, 2011 — 17 Comments

There is much to be learned from pain. Especially physical pain. I would never say it warrants being sought out or needlessly extended but there is always a lesson in it. It makes for a good metaphor. And metaphors are the key to understanding the world, as well as ourselves.

I fractured my elbow recently in a fall from a bike. I got up to try to shake it off. Stay with it, I told myself as I made my way to the gym to clean up. Do you want you need to do in spite of it. The value of physical pain is that it is finite. It ends when the ailment ends. We can use this as an opportunity to push on through, with the safety net of knowing it will eventually be over. It is practice.

For every physical pain or ailment, there are a hundred emotional and metaphysical pains. Not just pains but conditions: anxiety, discomfort, fear, uncertainty, and failure. We may be scared to acknowledge these or have no faith that we can bear them. Our injuries, our broken bones, aches, flus, migraines, and diseases—the distresses that come, are dealt with in time and then go (thought they occasionally leave a lasting trail), they are proof that we have what it takes to reach inside and deal with the others.

When you run and you get a blister. It hurts like hell for a minute—gets hot and pulsates, like an ember caught between the sock and the foot. If you’ve ever pushed through it, what happens is disgusting but wonderful at the same time. The skin bursts and the puss floods out, the body’s way of putting out the fire. The body, we forget, has all sorts of mechanisms designed to numb and treat pain. And so suddenly, it doesn’t hurt anymore.

Pain is a lesson in fortitude and also in self-awareness. In knowing our limits and our vulnerabilities. In a way it is a reminder that we are alive. Small or big, it prickles our senses and wakes them up—brings us back into the present, pulls us from our thoughts and to the physical. In many cases, it is a message that we are not in control.

What surprised me with my arm was that there was little sharp pain—sharp pain is easy to know what to do with. Take a pill. Clean a wound. See a doctor. But dull pain, dull pain is harder. We’re not as sure where to place it. Do we ignore and hope it will go away? Its what I did. All I felt was heaviness. Right up through the x-ray a few days later, I was sure it was nothing. Then it rose up and hit me in the room: I’m going to faint. I’m going to pass out right here from the pain in the middle of it all and promptly did.

We are not in control of pain. No matter how hard we try. Not of the cause or the duration—only the response. Through it we are given an opportunity to act our principles: justice, kindness, selflessness, moderation, self-direction. It offers the reminder that though pain is inevitable, suffering is not.

It’s funny because many of the toughest people shrink from facing these issues. Or are easily knocked around by it. They forget to stay with it, to push through, to do what they need to do in spite of it. Yet they face and endure the most trying physical calamities on a constant basis. This is to refuse to learn the lessons of pain. A failure to see what a calming, reassuring metaphor it is.